The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) Blu-ray Review

On sale now, released by Fabulous Films, directed by Volker Schlondorff.

The United States of America has become The Republic of Gilead, a right-wing totalitarian state. Women are subjugated and powerless in society. The world is rife with disease and infection, and few women remain who can have children: those who can are taken by the government, and christened handmaids . Kate, a handmaid, is sent to the house of Fred, the Commander. There she must submit to his demands, and those of Serena Joy, his jealous, vindictive wife. But some things cannot be controlled by The Republic – like Kate s growing feelings for The Commander s chauffeur Nick. Or the secret resistance, who meet under darkness.

The Handmaid’s Tale started off as a 1985 novel by science fiction writer Margaret Atwood (although she often labels her work ‘speculative fiction’) that has long been one of her best known works alongside The Blind Assassin and Oryx & Crake.

The novel contains themes of a not so distant dystopian future where the rich and entitled take advantage of a small group of women who can fall pregnant while most of the worlds population cannot. On the surface the story feels like a commentary on gender politics but it actually covers a whole range of serious subjects from religion to class warfare. It is held in such high regard this reviewer actually studied it at university many years ago as a way of examining feminist writing.

In 1990 it was made into this very movie that is being reviewed, with a lot of powerful people involved. From director Volker Schlondorff to screenwriter Harold Pinter to stars Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, the motion picture version of Atwood’s work is of a high calibre cast and crew. However there were issues behind the scenes with how her work should be depicted on screen and what should be left in the novel.

For those who have never read the book, this will not be a problem. Those who have will feel that too much of one aspect is covered over other areas of the story that were vital. The last 20 minutes of the movie seem to gallop through a large part of the source material. This could either be due to the difficulties Pinter faced or it was the directors attempt to have a more quick paced and snappy third act.

The depiction of the titular ‘handmaids’ is somewhat accurate, with scenes of them breaking out into mass hysteria at the thought of one of their own having sex or when they tear to pieces a man framed of rape. The scenes in which the ‘healthy’ Offred/Kate (the late Natasha Richardson) having sex with Duvall while his infertile wife lies behind her to hold his hands are surreal yet plausible in the context of the story.

The movie is well directed and the acting is great but it lacks the power that Atwood’s work possessed. Again this could be due to the issues with Pinter but that aside this simply works as a good film with some interesting ideas whereas it could have meant so much more.

The message is being depicted a lot better in the more recent Channel 4 TV series of the same name, which has met critical acclaim and won several Emmy’s. Perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale (written form) was too far ahead of its time to be turned into a feature film nearly three decades ago?

Here’s hoping that the brilliant Atwood dystopia novel Oryx and Crake is made into a movie soon…

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